No More Prayers. Action.

Today, I posted my reaction to what I thought was the latest mass shooting in the U.S. Later, I found out that two other mass shootings had taken place today: one in Savannah, where a gunman killed one woman and injured three men; the other, which happened practically as I was typing my fantasy of flaying the last shooter, in San Bernardino, California, where a small group of gunmen killed 14 people and injured as many as 17 others in a facility for people with developmental disabilities. This afternoon, there was also another shooting at a women’s clinic in Houston, although reports are murky as to whether the person shot and killed was a victim or suspect, or if the shooting was directly connected with a political agenda.

At some point I remember blogging (or possibly thinking about blogging) that if I tried to keep up with all the gun violence that happens in this country I’d spend all my time writing about it. Turns out my prediction was a lot more accurate than even I could have imagined.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here in my little corner of the Internets. But I’m going to say this anyway: this has got to stop.

Guns are not technogadgets. Guns are not fashion statements. They’re weapons. And our country is not a firing range or a real-life movie set. Civilization isn’t sustainable if every ten minutes there’s some disgruntled individual out there preparing to open fire on a supermarket or a bank or a strip mall. Nor can we have a functioning society if we let everyone with a trigger finger have a gun. Too many guns means too many opportunities to use them. I think the well-publicized fact that there have been more mass shootings than days in the year this year bears that out.

I’m sure many of you Fickle Readers out there know of Chekhov’s gun, the rule of writing that says if you introduce a gun in a play, you’d better be prepared to fire it before the play is over. Well, now we’re discovering that if you allow unfettered access to guns that people will find occasion to fire them. Even if they don’t start out as “bad guys with guns,” they often wind up that way.

Remember Steven Jones, the Northern Arizona University freshman who killed one fellow student and wounded three others in an early morning fight? Jones was reportedly very familiar with guns and was even a certified safety instructor. Now he’s murderer, and even though he’s maybe not going to jail for the rest of his life because he’s young and white and grew up in a nice neighborhood, he’s still going to have a criminal record for gun violence following him for the rest of his life. Because of something he did at age 18.

You know who else is going to have gun violence following him for the rest of his life? Laquan McDonald. And Tamir Rice. And Trayvon Martin. And Michael Brown. That’s because all these people are dead because of guns. Or, more accurately, because “good guys with guns” decided to reach for a gun instead of a phone or a pair of handcuffs–or instead of maybe just trying to communicate with words. The good guys felt threatened, and a gun was within easy reach.

I could go on about suicides and murder rates, both of which go way up when guns are present. I think I’ve made my point, though. The way things are is unacceptable. The golden age of guns, guns guns! has to end. Now.

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Good Art Break for a God-Awful Day

Wow, what a horrendous 24 hours. We had a hostage siege in Sydney that left the gunman plus two women dead. Then, at virtually the same time, there was news from Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, of an ex-marine who killed his ex-wife and five other members of her extended family (including a 14-year-old girl) and fled the area. (The shooter, Bradley Stone, was found dead in the woods today of an apparent suicide.) Then this morning, there’s news about the Taliban raid on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which nine staff members and 132 children were killed. (A further 3 staff members and 121 students were injured, in case you wanted a larger helping of awful with your sandwich of unbelievable horror.) Note that I’m not even talking about the case of Jessica Chambers, the 19-year-old Mississippi woman who died on December 6th because someone poured flammable liquid into her nose and down her throat and set her on fire. (Her death is making news this week because the group Anonymous as well as other bloggers and Internet trolls are leaking information about her case and spreading claims that Chambers was the victim of “gang activity” [read: African Americans], a black boyfriend [although so far there’s no evidence she had a boyfriend at all], and/or Ali Alsanai, the brown-skinned guy who runs the gas station where Chambers spent some of her final moments.) Note I’m also not talking about the report, published yesterday in The Smoking Gun, that details how the star grand jury witness who said she saw Michael Brown act aggressively before being shot down, in fact, lied on the stand and has a history of mental illness and making false statements to police.

For a year that’s boasted some astonishingly heinous, ghastly, and terrifying news, the headlines from today and yesterday are almost too far over the top at being bad. At this point, I’m so exhausted and disheartened and stunned by everything happening in the world that I’m even starting to deplete my thesaurus of synonyms for the word “bad.”

So here’s a little balm to take our collective minds off of the dark, ugly, unutterable badness out there. First, some art:

Yes, we all need rest. Especially me. (My meds have been shot to hell because of some surprise dental surgery I had last week. As in, “Surprise! Your tooth is coming apart!” And let me tell ya, you really know you’re aging when you find yourself discussing your dental surgery on the Internet.) If that rest can occur on a bed of butterflies, please make it happen.

Next, a couple of lovely pieces of writing that I just discovered in Twitterland: “Warriors,” a spare, mythic poem by Thato Angela Chuma; and “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” a short-story by Ken Liu that combines an ancient legend of lost love with a modern tale of two teenage lovers soon to be parted–AND manages to be surprising, real, surreal, and gorgeous in the execution of both elements. (And I’m VERY hard to surprise.)

How about some science and philosophy with that art? Here, courtesy of Salon.com and created by Kurzgesagt, a German design studio, is a video discussing how life and death may all be the same thing:

And, in case you’d just like some good old-fashioned goofy comedy antics, here’s a skit (also posted on Salon.com) that was cut out of SNL this past weekend. The topic? Santa traps!

Stay safe and happy and peaceful tonight, everyone! Hopefully, tomorrow will look just a teensy bit brighter.

 

Good Writing Break: Poems That Are Better than “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” [UPDATED]

Hey, Fickle Readers! I hope everyone had a peaceful holiday. (I myself got to visit my young cousins that I haven’t seen in two years. Then I slept for about 24 hours. But that’s another story.) I also hope that no one out there shopped at Wal-Mart, or at the very least only bought $1.25 worth of stuff and was sure to use up a lot of their store toilet paper and napkins, because I’m annoyed that Wal-Mart has screwed up yet another of my holiday experiences by forcing my older cousin (whom I also don’t see very often) to work on what ought to be a sacred, patriotic day of rest for everyone and not an orgy of buying and stampeding and consuming. (But, of course, we know what’s sacred to the CEOs and shareholders of this great country, now don’t we? Yet I digress…)

Since Thanksgiving and the Capitalist Orgy that Follows is now over, I thought I’d check in and see what’s happening in the poetry world these days. And what did I find but a sad, sad attempt by The Paris Review to plug into the spirit of protest over the events happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and that officer’s inevitable escape from justice, even in the form of a trial, because I know that if I start talking about the whole thing I’ll get so enraged I won’t be able to stop. (For instance, I’m sure I could write for an eternity on how what happened in Ferguson is EXACTLY the sort of government-sponsored violence that Tea Partiers have been warning the American public about for years, and yet they’re HAPPY about officer Darren Wilson’s exoneration because those same Tea Partiers also HATE AND FEAR BLACK PEOPLE. And how the supposedly inconsistent results from Michael Brown’s autopsy and/or the eyewitness testimony given at the scene of Brown’s death are all completely irrelevant in their inconsistencies, because, you know, grand juries are only supposed to send cases to TRIAL, and the place to hammer out any problems with results and testimony is in a TRIAL, which the “prosecutors” involved in evaluating Darren Wilson’s potentially criminal actions clearly wanted to avoid at all costs, so much so that they put NINE white jurors on the grand jury…AAAAND you can see how my post gets away from me at light speed.) But since poetry is kind of my thing, and since the politics of poetry along with writing in general is always of great interest to me, I thought I should really comment on, or provide an antidote for, The Paris Review‘s latest foray into the political arena. Mostly because–all snark and/or ranting aside–the poem chosen by the editors of said elite journal to represent Ferguson is really, really not very good.

Frederick Seidel’s “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (which you can read here via a link that won’t add to the website’s incoming traffic) is quite a mishmash of surreal imagery, shoutouts to baby boomers and white liberals about the civil rights movement, and the occasional weak platitude about racism (“Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.”). While I’m usually not averse to including Mars or other strange allusions in poetry, it seems somewhat unfathomably insensitive to take an event in which an 18-year-old African American took six bullet wounds to his body (that’s two fewer wounds that John Lennon died from–yeah, I can do baby boomer references, too) and transform that event into a detached, quasi-satirical, acid-trippy riff in which the message seems to be both “racism is bad” and “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote from the poem. Seidel also observes, “Some victims change from a corpse to a cause,” a sentiment I’m sure Brown’s parents would have found thoroughly comforting as their son’s body underwent three different autopsies.)

I want to be clear when I say that I don’t think only certain poets can write about certain kinds of events, or that famous old white-guy poets can’t ever tap into the experience of the poor, brown, broken, or oppressed. I will say, though, that if you’re a famous old white-guy poet, especially one who’s just picked up his 2014 Hadada Prize (whatever that is), and if you try to capture the voice of a town you don’t live in which also is suffering from ugly, violent racial tensions, you might want to do more than phone in some self-absorbed historico-political diatribe–especially when there are many, many other poets out there who could represent the voices of the poor, brown, broken, and oppressed, and most likely all of them could do that better than you.

So what can you, as a reader, do if you want to read poetry about the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson? I’ve already highlighted Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown” in an earlier post. Danez Smith recently re-published two poems, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” and “alternate names for black boys,” in buzzfeed.com; both pieces are powerful and thought-provoking and show no interest in sentiments we’ve all heard before. Or, if you’re determined to look at Ferguson from an old-school perspective, take the advice of amazing poet and novelist Sofia Samatar, skip over Seidel and go back to Langston Hughes, whose “Let America Be America Again” manages to make about twelve times as many original insights into the problems of race as Seidel, even though Hughes’s piece comes to us from eighty years in the past.

UPDATE: Apparently, great minds think alike. And certain great minds kick the asses of other great minds in terms of thoroughness. (No, don’t try to imagine that mixed metaphor. It’ll only hurt your brain. Trust me.) Check out this far more extensive list of poems that are better than Seidel’s on poet Jeanne Obbard’s lovely web site, The Poetic License. Thanks for the shoutout, Jeanne! I only wish our virtual meeting were under better circumstances…

Good Writing Break: In Memory of Michael Brown (and Justice)

For everyone sickened by the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there’s a powerful and poignant poem by Jason McCall up on Rattle‘s Poets Respond page. Here’s a taste:

It will happen,
an honest mistake
in a hot August classroom.
.
Someone will blink
at the name and swear this
“Michael Brown” can’t be
.
that “Michael Brown.” Or someone
will be too busy with her head down
finishing syllabi to look up and see the flash
.
grenades and tear
gas.
This piece was written the week that Michael Brown was killed, but it still resonates today when Brown’s absence–and the absence of justice in Ferguson–is so keenly felt.